Canon Fodder: The Persian-Ordained Bible

I was re-reading Joseph Blenkinsopp’s The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible, and I found a passage in his conclusion which nicely highlights and expands upon an argument I made in the first chapter of The Human Faces of God. Here’s some of what I wrote there:

After the loss of the monarchy, the vassal rulers of Judea—under the authority of the Persians, then the Greeks, and then the Romans—struggled to find ways to maintain political control over the people. The obvious resources at their disposal were the institutions of sacrifice and the corpus of literature that had been acquired over the centuries. Maintaining the geographical centralization of the rites of sacrifice ensured that people would continue to depend on the temple in Jerusalem for the favor of their deity. This also guaranteed a steady stream of income for the ruling elites in the capital, and marginalized the significance of rival religious factions. Moreover, bringing the broad corpus of literature under the domain of the establishment helped to ensure that it could not be used to inspire dissenting ideas. The genius of appropriating dissenting texts in service of establishment orthodoxy lies in that fact. Thus editors were put to work revising the texts, reframing the perspectives to give them a pro-establishment spin. We saw this already with the conclusion that was added to Ecclesiastes. The collection of oracles from the radical prophet Amos was also amended to include a happy ending for the Davidic pedigree, and so on down the line. Because of widespread illiteracy, the vast majority of the general population was none the wiser. . . .

It was during this period also that names of authoritative figures from Israel’s past were attached to these otherwise anonymous documents. Moses became the author of the Pentateuch; Joshua was written by Joshua; Samuel became the author of Judges and 1 and 2 Samuel; Jeremiah was said to have written the books of Kings; the books of Chronicles were ascribed to Ezra; many of the Psalms were attributed to David; and Proverbs and Ecclesiastes were both said to have been written by Solomon. In this way, a sense of unity and authority was brought to a diverse set of texts. Although the Pentateuch is clearly composite in nature and was obviously composed in pieces over the course of centuries, the tradition that the entirety was composed by Moses brought legitimacy to any and all late additions to the narratives. By attributing both Proverbs and Ecclesiastes to the same man (King Solomon), the elites were able to disguise the fact that the latter book constituted a fairly incisive critique of the former. As one would expect, with the progression of time, traditions about the composition of the Bible became ever more incredible. For instance, in the second century BCE, two separate books (Baruch and Ben Sira) would both identify the Torah as the earthly instantiation of preexistent personified Wisdom. In other words, the books of Moses had already been written before the foundation of the world! This idea would later become commonplace among the rabbis.

To summarize, the process by which these disparate books were collected together into a single curriculum was undertaken in large part in order to contribute to the consolidation of political power—as a way to safeguard religious identity and group cohesion. This does not necessarily imply any unsavory motives, but at the very least it is clear that this was a process overseen by the political elites at every turn. Absent more effective institutions of political control, the texts were brought together to form a sort of divinely-commissioned legislature.1

Blenkinsopp expands on these themes:

One catalyst of the Deuteronomic movement . . . was the need to resolve conflicting claims to authority in the religious (and therefore also the political) sphere. . . . Appeal to the authority of the past, and to a great figure in the past like Moses, is of course a standard form of validation by no means confined to Israel. W. G. Lambert spoke of a Babylonian concept of canonicity, exemplified in the work of Berossus but certainly operating much earlier, according to which all revealed knowledge was handed down once and for all to the antediluvian sages. With respect to Israel, contact with the Mesopotamian intellectual tradition during the Neo-Babylonian period may also have significantly influenced this appeal to a normative antiquity and the production of a corpus of normative texts. A similar process was at work in the pseudepigraphical writings of the Hellenistic period, attributed to such ancient worthies as Enoch, Shem, and even Adam. These too were motivated by concern to validate a particular social world, and the Weltanschauung [worldview] that went with it, over and against other claims. A similar motivation informed the production of Deuteronomy which is, after all, an earlier example of the same pseudepigraphical genre. . . .

The combination of the P history with Deuteronomy, resulting in a narrative from creation to the death of Moses, and the concentration of all the legal material within this narrative framework, cannot be explained exclusively in terms of circumstances, exigencies, and events intrinsic to the Jewish community. After the capture of Babylon by Cyrus II in 539 B.C., Jews living in the province of Judah and the Babylonian diaspora came under Iranian rule which lasted for about two centuries, until the conquests of Alexander. During these two centuries the policy of the Achemenids [Persians] was to respect the very diverse political and social systems obtaining throughout their vast empire, granting semi-autonomous status as long as edicts were obeyed and tribute paid. The same policy held for local cults and cultures; and, in fact, archaeological excavation in provinces as diverse as Bactria, Babylon, Egypt, and Judah itself has revealed very little Persian impact on the material culture of the regions in question.

One aspect of this imperial policy was the insistence on local self-definition inscribed primarily in a codified and standardized corpus of traditional law backed by the central government and its regional representatives. The Persians, it seems, had no uniform legal code of their own. . . . In Babylon, therefore, the Neo-Babylonian laws would have remained in force. . . . As for Egypt, the Demotic Chronicle . . . informs us that, as an aspect of the reorganization of the empire, Darius I set up a commission of warriors, priests, and scribes to codify the traditional Egyptian laws, the final draft of which was written up in Aramaic and demotic Egyptian. The composition of the commission charged with this task suggests an insistence on a legal system based on consensus. Since internal harmony was essential for the preservation of the pax Persica in the many and diverse ethnic groups in the empire, this is no more than we would expect. . . .

Judah would certainly have felt the impact of Darius’ reorganization of the empire during the early years of his reign. At that time the rebuilding of the temple destroyed by the Babylonians was completed, and a dominant elite, composed of leading Babylonian lineages and temple personnel, had begun to settle in the homeland with the support of the imperial authorities. . . . It is reasonable to suggest that these measures included a first attempt at assembling and codifying the different collections of law then in existence.

According to the biblical record Ezra arrived in the province in the seventh year of Artaxerxes, probably Artaxerxes I and therefore in the year 458 B.C., with a mandate to oversee the administration of “the law of your God and the law of the king,” set up appropriate judicial procedures, and enforce penalties for nonobservance (Ezra 7). The law in question was not a new creation since it is assumed that it was known in the province (Ezra 7:25). Explicit references in Ezra-Nehemiah to laws and to practices observed in accordance with laws point unmistakably to Deuteronomy 12-26 [seventh century compositions] supplemented with Priestly legislation, and therefore suggest that Ezra’s mission represents a further phase in the consolidation of the legal tradition. In this situation, also, it seems that the impetus came from outside the Jewish community. After the grave problems that faced Artaxerxes I in the early years of his reign, including a major uprising in Egypt supported by the Athenians, one which threatened all of the western provinces including Judah, the need for reorganization and consolidation was urgent. This critical situation provides the most plausible context for the decree addressed to Ezra from the imperial chancellory in Susa and the mission that it mandated. . . .

The Pentateuchal law in its final form represents a compromise between different interest groups with their own legal traditions worked out in several stages during the two centuries of Persian rule. As such, it was authorized by the imperial authorities as the law and constitution of the Jewish ethnos, and its implementation was backed by the same authorities. That it was combined with a narrative of founding events resulted from the Jewish community’s need for a sense of identity and continuity with the past, though the omission of the conquest narrative was no doubt also dictated by a prudent regard for the political reality of subordination to a foreign power.

A further and final consideration concerns the quantitative preponderance of ritual law and its central position in the Pentateuch. There is ample evidence that Achemenid rulers favored local cult establishments and went to considerable pains to ensure that they operated smoothly. [Blenkinsopp then lists several examples where Persian rulers restored local temples to their local deities, and took great pride in doing so.] These examples of a standard Achemenid policy vis-à-vis local cults corroborate the measures reported in Ezra-Nehemiah, no doubt with considerable exaggeration, in favor of the Jerusalem temple, its cult and personnel. The motivation for this policy was not, of course, purely religious, though Achemenid rulers, with the possible exception of Xerxes, seem to have regarded foreign deities as patrons, and we note the insistence that sacrifices and prayers for the [Persian] royal family be incorporated in the Jerusalem liturgy (Ezra 6:10). The small province of Judah belonged to the category of temple community well attested throughout the Achemenid empire. Political, social, and economic status in this type of organization involved participation in and support of the cult and its numerous dependents. This implied that the maintenance of the cult was seen from the official angle as an essential aspect of imperial control. At this point, therefore, imperial and inner-Jewish interests coincided, especially in the second century of Persian rule with the increasing influence and hegemony of the priesthood—hence the preponderant emphasis on cultic law and the central position in the Pentateuch of dispositions regarding the sanctuary, its personnel, and its operations.2

And all of this of course further informs one of the principal problems with canonical hermeneutics as espoused by such as Brevard Childs—a pious naïveté. Childs and his heirs want to see canon formation as a process of the community for the community. As I put it in chapter nine of Human Faces:

What matters to proponents of canonical hermeneutics is the final form of the text. After all, they say, the church is not a community of historians but of believers. It was the faith community that originally saw fit to bring these disparate texts together; it was the faith community that canonized these texts in their present form. If the texts are going to continue to be useful, they will be useful not as objects of historical curiosity but as dynamic scriptures which are the rightful property of the community of faith. They were not brought together with the intention of providing historians with fodder for discussion; they were brought together with the intention of providing the community of faith the inspiration it needs to be faithful in a trying world. As a result, readings that challenge the truthfulness of this or that text, or readings that are primarily concerned with discerning multiple layers within a composite text in order to get to the historical core—these readings, according to proponents of canonical hermeneutics, render the texts useless for their intended purpose: encouraging the faith community in its faith. Thus, canonical hermeneutics is not concerned with pitting one set of texts against another, but with discerning the “big picture.” Canonical readings seek to discover the macro-narrative that underlies the minutiae. The important thing is the forest, not the trees.3

I articulate a number of problems with this perspective in the book, but one is relevant to the material reviewed here:

The premise of canonical hermeneutics is that the final form of the text is authoritative because that is what the faith community chose. The problem with this is that the final form of the text was not chosen by “the faith community,” but by the religious and political elites in order to serve their own interests. Moreover, the vast majority of biblical texts were written by elites, not by “the faith community.” Proponents of canonical hermeneutics are either unintentionally or willfully naïve here—in most cases the naïveté is willful. Canonical readings simply act as if the evolution of the text is irrelevant to its meaning; usually this is because it is deemed to be more expedient for the purpose of exhorting a faith community if such considerations are put aside.4

And of course, the interests of the Judean ruling elites coincided with the interests of the Persian empire, as detailed above. I would like to conclude, therefore, that any attempt to argue for the “authoritativeness” of the canonical form of the text will be dangerously inadequate if it does not take the imperial role in the formation of the Hebrew Bible seriously into account. Why, given (at the very least) the political agenda of the final redactors, should we take the final form of the text to be in some way more authoritative than any or all of its earlier constituent parts? If this is something that is solely taken on faith, then that’s all that really needs to be said about the matter, leaving each individual to decide for her or himself the merits of such a very specific faith claim, one which seems to me to stand in tension with the historical and ideological realities that drove the shaping of the canonical text.

  1. Stark, The Human Faces of God, 12-14. [BACK]
  2. Joseph Blenkinsopp, The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible, 235-36, 239-42, emphasis mine. [BACK]
  3. Stark, Human Faces, 215. [BACK]
  4. Ibid. [BACK]

9 thoughts on “Canon Fodder: The Persian-Ordained Bible

  1. I can see how some texts (which I call “temple texts”) probably came from the powerful elite but others are so critical of the elite (which I call “social justice texts”) that you almost have to rip apart the Book (and even individual books) and say “this came from the rulers” and “this comes from the oppressed masses or the revolutionary prophet”; the former under-girding the temple system, the latter subverting. How did the latter voice manage to survive the rulers?? Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah do both and, surprisingly, Exodus gas both streams (cult & justice). The alternative explanation to positing Two Streams of authorship is, as Ed Sanders has shown, the simple fact that the ancients had no interest in being consistent and systematising content we find unharmonious.

  2. “the former under-girding the temple system, the latter subverting.”

    That’s a bit too simplistic a division. Some prophets were critical of the temple system; others weren’t. Jeremiah was critical of earlier rulers, but his message was appropriated in ways by D to buttress the reforms.

    Ed Sanders is right, but there are other factors. As I discuss in my book (and in the Copan review), such as that bringing a dissenting text under the banner of the official corpus is the best way to control its transmission and interpretation. And the redactors edited many of these texts for just that purpose.

    There’s also the fact that some of these traditions were so well established that they couldn’t just be disregarded. As Blenksinsopp said, compromises had to be made.

  3. Also, Marc, bear in mind that Blenkinsopp is speaking here of the final redaction of the legal corpus in particular.

  4. I guess my real doubt about such criticism is that it can’t plausibly explain how anti-establishment texts like Isaiah (e.g. 1 v11 ff), Hosea (e.g. ch 6), Ezekiel (e.g ch 18), Jeremiah (ch7) were retained. They subvert and even condemn the ruling temple authorities and say, what counts is how you treat the oppressed (co opting the temple as did Jesus). If we had one-sided propaganda it would be easier to say: this comes from the elite. As to being well established, one would expect the ruling redactors to soften the blow but the polemic is so sharp that this seems not to be the case. It’s clear the ruling class had a strong voice but final redaction seems to be quite even handed…

  5. Once again, Marc, Blenkinsopp is talking specifically about the redaction of the legal corpus, not of the whole Hebrew Bible.

    And there is ample evidence throughout the prophets that the “blows” were softened. Amos is a great example. I think you’re misreading Jeremiah 7; it is a polemic against injustice, yes, but also against the worship of other gods, which fits right in line with the Josianic reforms and the temple regime’s agenda.

    And I think you’re reflecting a common misunderstanding about the form propaganda takes. Propagandists will make good use of anti-establishment voices, and this serves the purpose of distinguishing them from the “corrupt establishment.” The criticisms of corrupt elites can be appropriated by a new regime in order to differentiate itself from its predecessors. This is the way propaganda works, like a politician who appeals to libertarian sensibilities but then goes on to enact fascistic policies. That’s what I was talking about when I discussed the fact that dissenting voices are appropriated by the elite in order to put them to work for their purposes. Of course, sometimes (as with Jeremiah and Josiah), the ideologies are very similar already.

  6. In short, you seem to be assuming that politicians must employ their rhetoric coherently, which as far as I can tell has never been the case.

  7. You are right, I’m thinking OT and you’re discussing cultic and toraic texts where the temple is the necessary and sufficient condition for forgiveness and purity.

    But casting out glance wider – and here I may be thinking simplistically – if I’m a corrupt regime who oppresses the poor, I don’t allow holy writ which condemns my practices. If we can assume that the ruling elite are in general corrupt and oppressive then we need to see good evidence of softening or removal of subversive texts.

    In a western democracy there may be a window of opportunity shortly after election where you can talk the talk but not walk the walk but within a dynasty you need a corpus which supports you and keeps your descendants on top over centuries. Otherwise you get holy revolutionaries waving books and you’re gone.

  8. Good. Well first of all, when we’re talking about the final redactors, we’re not talking about a powerful regime engaging in systematic oppression. We’re talking about vassal rulers with very limited powers, and therefore the prophetic critiques of royal excesses would not have been very threatening to them.

    You may be assuming I was saying Ezra and his school were, because of their imperial associations, oppressing the poor, but I never said that, nor did what I say really imply it. Of course, Ezra’s policies were very oppressive to certain groups—think of the forced expulsion of all non-pure-blooded Judeans from the region, the wives and children of Judean men who had intermarried with the am haaretz. And Ezra strongarmed the entire populace, threatening them with expropriation of their possessions if they didn’t comply, etc. But this was, in Ezra’s mind, in accordance with one side of the prophetic critique—the permission of foreign cults into Judean religion (although there is no evidence that the integration that occurred led to religious infidelity in this period; it has more to do with Ezra’s xenophobia). At any rate, we’re not talking about the kind of systemic injustice characteristic of the Northern and Southern monarchies prior to their respective exiles. There isn’t much in the prophetic corpus that really threatens the Judean elites under Persian hegemony, at least as far as what is recorded and preserved from this period. The book of Jonah, which was a critique of ideologies like Ezra’s, wouldn’t be written until much later.

    But that doesn’t really touch on the main point I and Blenksinopp are making about the imperial function of the consolidation of the legal corpora into one body. The M.O. of the Judean elites during the Persian period was centralization, stabilization, and pacification. They didn’t wield enough power for the critiques of systemic injustice to really obtain.

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